“I—can’t—move!” the cleric choked, her hand locked like a vise around her holy symbol. Her eyes darted sluggishly from her party to the fetid claw piercing her shoulder. An odious scent drifted from the ghoul’s calcified jaw, and putrid ooze dripped from its mouth onto the cleric’s shoulder. She futilely willed her legs to move, anything to get her numb body away from the hungering abomination tearing into her flesh.
The cleric managed to force her body forward a fraction of an inch—just enough to cause her to overbalance and fall face-first into knee-deep sewer filth. But it was enough. While her barely whispered words could not attract her party’s attention, the loud splash of a paralyzed halfling in half plate was like the pealing of a church bell in the silent sewer.
The wizard gasped in disgusted horror at the shadowy sight of the creature hunched over his companion. It was like a human, but unnaturally tall and thin, with skin and muscles stretched grotesquely over its bones. Its hands were distended into knifelike claws, and a hideous tongue lolled from its fanged, decaying maw.
Two knives whistled through the air over the gnome wizard’s pointed hat, embedding themselves firmly in the ghoul’s hand. It shrieked and recoiled in pain, stepping away from its paralyzed prey.
“Get away from her,” the rogue snarled, producing two more blades from his belt. “I know you have a brain in your rotten skull. Mark me, you walking cadaver. Flee, and pray to Orcus you never see these knives again.”
A dim ember of recognition flared in the ghoul’s pearlescent eyes, and it took a tentative, fearful step backward, its dull gaze flitting between the rogue and the cleric. Sense almost seemed to get the better of its hunger—but only almost. It wailed in fury and dove at the paralyzed cleric, but it never reached her. Two more knives whistled through the air and planted themselves deep in its neck. The ghoul splashed in the sewage and collapsed, motionless.
“Let’s get her up,” the rogue said to the wizard, an edge of fear creeping into his once-authoritative voice. “And let’s book it topside. These things never travel alone.”
Ghouls are one of the first D&D creatures I ever fought. There’s a short, prewritten adventure scenario in the 3.5 edition Dungeon Master’s Guide which describes the abandoned cellar of an ancient monastery. There’s not much to it, and it has no real story to speak of—but I’ll always remember these damn ghouls. We had them outnumbered in a cramped room, just three ghouls versus five 1st-level characters, but one ghoul nabbed my ranger with its paralyzing claws in the first round… and I was down for the count the rest of the fight. In fact, the fight went so poorly, my teammates let my paralyzed ranger get dragged off and gnawed on during the fight as they tried (and only barely succeeded) to kill the remaining two.
These undead are the bane of low-level characters. Their scariness wears off quickly (for reasons we’ll get into later), but knowing how to deploy ghouls effectively will help make your low-level undead encounters truly terrifying.
Lore: Spawn of Orcus
The fifth edition Monster Manual suggests that the first ghouls were created by an elven devotee of Orcus. For a time, this elf—Doresain—found himself in Orcus’s favor, and resided in the Abyss where he created undead legions for the great Demon Prince of Undeath. But Orcus was fickle, as all demons are, and Doresain soon lost his master’s favor, and refused to save him when Doresain’s domain was ransacked by a rival demon prince. Frantic, Doresain beseeched the elven gods for mercy, and their pity saved him from total annihilation.
This barebones backstory is perfect for ghouls. They don’t need any complex lore, and it’s simple enough to ignore their ties to Orcus and the Abyss is your story doesn’t call for it. But, if you want to make the first few levels of your campaign a little bit more epic, playing up the extraplanar link between ghouls and the Demon Prince of Undeath will serve you well. These creatures can even be the backbone for the lower levels of a campaign about the Blood War, providing some variety while the characters are gaining enough strength to take on real demons.
Tactics: Relentless Devourers
Ghouls exist to consume. While they possess simple intelligence and a degree of cunning, ghouls use their wits only to pursue the flesh of the living. Their hunger is purposeless and inscrutable, but any dungeon delver worth their salt knows not to underestimate it. Seasoned veterans sometimes haul around the corpses of humanoids they kill within dungeons if they know ghouls are nearby, as ghouls prefer carrion to living flesh. After all, even if a bandit didn’t have any loot on its body, its corpse can still be of some use as a distraction.
Also, depending on the situation, you may wish for ghouls to be led by their creator. Some creatures, like maurezhi demons, can transform creatures they kill into ghouls. At your discretion, necromancers and cultists of Orcus may have ghoul minions they’ve risen from the dead. Giving undead a creator can create a satisfyingly cohesive location… but it’s also perfectly reasonable for ghouls to simply be milling about an ancient facility, their creators long since departed or turned into a ghoul themselves.
Tattered Intelligence. Ghouls have an Intelligence score of 7 and the ability to understand and speak Common. This means that ghouls can fill caverns with eerie, echoing moans and chilling threats to scare their prey. It’s even possible for adventurers to converse with ghouls, though a ghoul will rarely speak when it has the chance to eat.
Undead Hordes. A lone ghoul is of little consequence, but a pack of ghouls can be deadly, even to prepared adventurers. We’ll take a closer look at this later, but the ghouls’ paralytic claws aren’t much of a threat when facing one at a time, but grow exponentially more dangerous when faced en masse. Plus, a horde of shrieking undead running through the sewers towards a group of terrified heroes is a classic zombie horror trope, and taps directly into many players’ narrative expectations.
A Ghoul’s Traits
Ghouls are simple monsters, but their traits are still worth examining. If you know how a ghoul’s traits function, you can play them cleverly and frighteningly, making full use of their strengths and weaknesses.
Defenses. Ghouls have low AC and hit points for creatures of their challenge rating, but they do have a few damage and condition immunities. Like all undead, they’re immune to poison damage. While player characters probably won’t target any undead creatures with poison attacks, this immunity allows you to pair them devastatingly with poison gas traps or similar hazards.
Movement. Ghouls have a standard 30 feet of movement. Nothing special here.
Darkvision. Unsurprisingly, ghouls have darkvision. Even at low levels, this trait probably won’t allow you to set up interesting ambushes or encounters unless you have a party made up of humans, halflings, and dragonborn. If you can split up the party, however, a ghoul ambushing the lone human from the shadows can be a moment of pure adrenaline.
Offense. Ghouls have two attacks: a bite and their claws. The bite attack is inaccurate (with only a +2 to hit), but deals more damage than the claws. However, the claw attack is more accurate (+4 to hit) and comes with a fearsome special effect: creatures damaged by the claws must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution save or be paralyzed for 1 minute!
Paralyzed is one of the harshest conditions in the game, and being paralyzed for a full minute can spell doom for a low-level character. Once a creature is paralyzed, a ghoul may wish to start biting it instead of making additional claw attacks, since it attacks with advantage (making it easier to hit with the inaccurate bite) and its attacks instantly become critical hits against paralyzed creatures (magnifying the bite’s already improved damage).
A ghast is simply a stronger ghoul. They have a few more hit points, an extra point of AC, and resistance to necrotic damage, but their real power comes from the two additional traits they gain.
Stench. Creatures near the ghast must make a saving throw or become poisoned, which makes it harder for poisoned creatures to hit them and their allies.
Turning Defiance. The ghast is resistant to the effects of Turn Undead, making it harder for clerics to force their way through the encounter. Not only that, but ghasts extend this power to all other ghouls within 30 feet of it—reinforcing the power of having ghouls travel in packs!
When I think of D&D ghouls, I think of a ghoul paralyzing a character (in this case, my poor ranger back in third edition) and then dragging it off into a dark corner to disembowel its still-living prey. I suspect I’m not the only one who thinks this: the image for “Paralyzed” in the Player’s Handbook is of a ghoul dragging a paralyzed character off to its den!
Unfortunately, it’s hard for a ghoul to live up to its horrifying reputation in fifth edition D&D. Since characters can repeat their saving throw to “shake off” their paralysis at the end of each of their turns, a character will probably only be paralyzed for a round or two—not nearly long enough for a ghoul to drag the poor adventurer away into the darkness, never to be seen again!
If you want to recapture this old-school feeling of ghouls dragging off paralyzed prey, consider this homebrew rule: remove the sentence “The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success” from the ghoul’s claw attack. This change is probably powerful enough to be worth increasing its challenge rating from 1 to 2. Alternatively, only make this change to ghasts, making their increased power over normal ghouls even more potent.
Use Horror to your Taste
Ghouls are, in my opinion, used best to create a feeling of horror. Most people have a deep fear of powerlessness, and the horror genre takes full advantage of that fear. There are few effects in D&D that make player characters truly powerless, but paralysis is one of them. If you want more tips on how I create an atmosphere of horror in D&D, take a look at How to Play a Mind Flayer like an Eldritch Horror, which delves into the psychological power of darkness and uncertainty.
Just be sure you deploy horror wisely; horror requires a great deal of buy-in from your players. Essentially, players will rarely be scared in D&D unless they want to be scared, so it’s in your best interest to be up-front with them: “I want to run a horror game today. Do you want to do this, and are you ready?”
If you know your players are up for something a little different from the usual D&D power fantasy, rock on. If not, maybe use ghouls more like action movie zombies (like in I Am Legend or Left 4 Dead) rather than horror zombies (like in 1408 or Half Life 2).
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two eternally hungry familiars, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.